So why did the sight of India’s cricket team — possibly the 11 most loved men anywhere in the world — dropping to the grass in a shiny Dubai stadium, in support of racial equality, trigger incredulity to start with and utter cynicism by the end?
Because in taking the knee — and it now transpires that it was on the orders of the board that manages the national game — they were not being vocal defenders of civil liberties. In fact, given that they have rarely, if ever, spoken on any contemporary issue of social justice in India, they were being precisely the opposite. In following instructions to endorse a campaign that has virtually no manifestation in the Indian context (caste discrimination would be more relevant), the cricketers were picking a topic that was distant and thus “safe.”
Given how tumultuous a time it is in India — with ferocious public debates erupting over everything from the pandemic to the spiraling violence in Kashmir — there is much to say and do related to the country’s own domestic realities. The cricketers could have thrown their unparalleled influence behind any cause dear to them. One example is how the former Bangladesh cricket captain made a blistering statement on the spate of attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh.
Had they continued to remain silent, as they usually are, no one would have noticed. Everyone was too engrossed in the faceoff with Pakistan, an adrenaline-thumping sporting encounter like no other in South Asia. It’s when they suddenly decided to borrow from the playbook of American football players to make a superficial show of support for an issue far removed from them that their opacity on more relevant matters suddenly became striking.
Intriguingly, India’s left, right and center seem united in believing that the gesture smacked of the worst sort of tokenism. Even this might have ended with mild opprobrium if it were not for what happened next.
Pakistan walked away with the match, and as happens so often with big-ticket playoffs, Indians were heartbroken. Some people online started making coarse and lewd comments about the defeat. The person who got the worst of it was 31-year-old player Mohammed Shami. Toxic, brazenly Islamophobic comments were left on his Instagram page, suggesting that he was a traitor, one who could take the next flight out to Pakistan. Shami was singled out in a different way than other players, and the language used for him was directly related to his being Muslim. In fact, he is the only Muslim on the team’s playing lineup for this tournament — a fact that would have been irrelevant had the hate directed at him online not underscored his religion.
Now there was a real parallel with the Black Lives Matter moment. What happened to Shami was similar to what happened to Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, British footballers subjected to horrific racist abuse online after missing their penalty shots in the Euro 2020 finals earlier this year.
If the Indian team taking the knee seemed cosmetic earlier, after what happened to Shami, the gesture began to seem worse than gratuitous. It felt hypocritical. Were they not going to take a knee in some way in support of their comrade?
Virat Kohli, India’s captain and a pugnacious and brilliant sportsman known to be aggressively loyal to his team members, had displayed generosity and grace in the manner in which he congratulated the Pakistani team on its big win. Photographs of him hugging Mohammad Rizwan, whose brilliant play delivered the Pakistanis their victory, went viral and made people in both countries feel warm and fuzzy. In the subcontinent, where an India-Pakistan match is often called war by another name, Kohli had behaved as grown-ups should. So his silence about his colleague on the day was bewildering and disappointing.
Amid mounting criticism, many prominent cricketing names denounced what Shami had been subjected to. But as that happened, Kohli was silent. Did he need the go-ahead from the cricket control board? Was he wary of toxic comments being left on his online pages? Was he worried about the cost of speaking up even on this most basic of issues?
In this silence, you could hear the deafening meaninglessness of the Indian cricket team taking the knee.